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November 30, 2023+George Yancey
+Public Policy+Campus Climate

The Health of Identity Politics Advocates

Previous research has documented that political conservatives have higher levels of mental well-being than political progressives. My recent article indicates a strong relationship between adherence to identity politics and political well-being. Indeed, I find that controlling for adherence to identity politics reduces, and in some cases eliminates, the political differences in well-being between conservatives and progressives. It is plausible that the greater propensity of progressives to use identity politics is why they are less happy than conservatives. Given the role that identity politics plays on our college campuses today, these results have important ramifications for the social atmosphere in higher education.

In the past progressives have relied more on class-based politics, so the notion of promoting universal interests of the lower class was the core feature of progressive politics. However, over the past few decades, identity politics has become more prominent among progressives. Identity politics is the idea that group identity should be the focus of political efforts. Modern identity politics focuses on using political means to make gains for a specific group conceptualized as having a marginalized position in society. Thus, political activism is more about making gains for selected groups such as women, racial minorities, the LGBTQ community, and so forth. This shift from class-based universalist politics to identity-based politics may be why we see lower levels of well-being for progressives as opposed to conservatives.

Why might identity politics be linked to lower levels of well-being? Haidt and Lukianoff offer a possible answer in The Coddling of the American Mind, their book on the potential effects of identity politics and mental health. They suggest that the ideals within such a political approach encourage dysfunctional types of thinking. One example is that this type of approach encourages dichotomous thinking: Individuals and groups can be categorized as either dire enemies or supportive friends. This way of thinking, and other types of dysfunctional thinking, can feed into a politics that concentrates on eliminating a common enemy rather than working together to build something greater.

"It is also possible that accepting identity politics reinforces certain psychological mechanisms that lead to lower levels of well-being."

My research cannot determine what comes first: identity politics or lower well-being. It is quite possible that the move toward identity politics attracts individuals with lower levels of well-being. Such individuals may be looking for a vehicle to express frustrations connected to their lower levels of well-being and flock to identity politics to express that frustration. However, it is also possible that accepting identity politics reinforces certain psychological mechanisms that lead to lower levels of well-being. This chicken-or-egg issue cannot be resolved with the current data in this research, but hopefully more information can be collected that gets at the question of causal direction.

Regardless of whether identity politics or lower levels of well-being come first, there are important implications of this relationship between identity politics and well-being, most notably that the pursuit of political gain is the pursuit of power. I do not want to overemphasize the lower levels of well-being of those engaging in identity politics, but neither can we ignore the reality that identity politics may produce politicians who cater to those with lower levels of well-being. Of course, all individuals in our society deserve representation, but we could be in danger of less mentally healthy people having political overrepresentation. There can be real consequences to this.

For example, one of the areas where identity politics was powerfully connected to lower levels of mental well-being in my paper was depression. Anger can be an important source of depression. It does not take a lot of imagination to consider what can go wrong if politicians focus too much on catering to angry, depressed individuals at the expense of those who are less angry and depressed. Yet politicians, who often react to the loudest voices, may act on behalf of constituents who will make the sort of demands depressed anger can create. Of course, other measures of well-being may bring about a different set of issues.

"We should be aware that the focus on identity politics most likely has detrimental effects on our students."

These issues are particularly important for students in higher education. Younger individuals are more likely to report mental illness than older individuals. Many recognize (here, here and here) that identity politics has become commonplace on college campuses today. We should be aware that the focus on identity politics most likely has detrimental effects on our students. Attempting to outlaw identity politics is counterproductive. It will only energize those engaging in identity politics to revolt against the establishment.

Furthermore, the solution to this issue is not support for conservative politics. In recent years the well-being gap between Democrats and Republicans has closed, although it has not been eliminated. This is not surprising given that with the coming of Donald Trump, political conservatives have begun to engage in their own version of identity politics in the form of “white grievance.” Political conservatives may be moving from politics with a universalist appeal to politics focused on furthering the interest of a different set of interest groups. There is no reason to believe that as Republicans move in this direction, they will not be as vulnerable to the problems created by a focus on identity politics as Democrats.

If there is a solution, it is in moving away from identity politics toward a politics that takes the interest of all groups into account. The focus of identity politics on serving specific groups creates unnecessary friction. This both encourages a transfer of power to those likely to reinforce our polarization and negatively impacts the well-being of those entering politics. We need to consider, on both the left and the right, how to fashion a political culture on our campuses that is based on building community rather than how to put our group on top of other groups.

A focus on promoting universal values rather than protecting identity politics may be the best approach for us to consider. Such an approach may lead to the building of community and reduction of the polarization too common on college campuses. Universal values of humanizing those we disagree with may not only create a healthier collegiate community but also facilitate an atmosphere that encourages higher levels of well-being. When we do that, we will move away from identity politics and establish a better academic and mental atmosphere for everyone, regardless of the groups they identify with.

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